SIOUX CITY, Iowa ? A lesser politician may not have been able to pull it off.
To laughs, applause and not a few “oohs” at the naughtiness of the question, Mitt Romney was asked at a town hall meeting in the conservative corner of this polite-to-a-fault state if he would “take the gloves off” were he to face Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the general election next year.
The former Massachusetts governor began his answer to the lunchtime crowd by saying that he had already experienced something similar.
"I’ve already run and won against a female candidate under difficult circumstances, and I understood the unique delicacies involved in such a race."
That was the message, anyway ? but of course Romney didn’t put it quite like that.
What he actually said was: “I had the fun of running against a very qualified person when I ran for governor, and she had an ideal name for running for governor of Massachusetts. Her name was Shannon O’Brien.
"And you know you have to be respectful of people on the other side of the aisle, and I don’t want to make personal attacks and I wouldn’t personally attack my opponents.”
With this politic reply, the candidate who boasts how new he is to politics conveyed an important point to a room full of Republicans looking for a winner.
Romney is exceptionally quick on his feet and a political consultant’s dream when it comes to what the pros call “message discipline.”
And like his potential Democratic rival, Romney is good on details, preparation and finding common ground.
If he’s in the biggest city in the western part of this state’s corn belt, he’ll pepper his remarks with an easy discourse on the intricacies of the local crop and a recollection of youthful days working on an uncle’s farm in Idaho.
An appearance in a heavily Dutch town up the road later in the day prompts him to recall campaigning in similar communities in western Michigan such as Holland when his father was running for governor.
As those who have been Romney-tized will attest, the guy is good.
Yet a day on the campaign trail with him in this key, first-in-the-nation state reveals a more complicated picture.
For all his natural gifts and extemporaneous skills, Romney lacks the sort of warmth that has come so easily to our past two presidents.
Taking questions at his “Ask Mitt Anything” forums or greeting voters individually at an afternoon stop for ice cream, he acts the part of the MBA he is.
Topics ranging from whether our nation will merge with Canada and Mexico to what his views are on the U.S. space program are dispatched with ease. So is a round of introductions at the ice cream parlor.
But his answers are given with the sort of precision and alacrity that is more clinical than heartfelt. His handshakes, offered up with quick reading of the recipient’s name tag, are just as businesslike.
Which is perhaps the best way to describe Mitt Romney.
The former CEO is as comfortable in his ever-present business suit as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is in his tieless white shirt. One can easily visualize Romney methodically and effectively taking a stiletto to the federal budget and keeping the bureaucratic trains running 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
But it’s more difficult to conceive him in the role of "therapist in chief" that our Oprah culture demands.
When a 5-year-old boy named Sam took the microphone at Romney’s final event of the day, the candidate probably expected a question along the lines of “Why do you want to be president?”
Instead, the child, with a little help from his mother, told Romney he had autism.
“We as a nation, I think, are very generous in the way we invest in research,” Romney responded to him.
“The National Institutes of Health, which you’re paying for, spends about $50 to $60 billion a year to find the answers to how to solve serious diseases and challenges. That’s certainly something I support as well.
"We’re not going to slack away from our commitment to provide support for the research that will help us develop new science and new technology to improve the well-being of American citizens.”
Romney then used the question to pivot onto stem cell research and score some points with the conservative crowd by reminding them that he stood against the destruction of embryos in Massachusetts ? which was actually fairly effective.
But it didn’t please Sam and his mother.
It’s easy to imagine how President Clinton would have handled a similar query. Recall how he ambled over to the lady who had asked then-President George H.W. Bush at the University of Richmond debate in 1992 about the personal effect of the nation’s debt on the candidates.
“Tell me how it’s affected you again ? you know people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes?” Clinton asked before telling her, “I’ll tell you how it’s affected me” and launching into a heart-to-heart about how the people he knew in Arkansas and around the country who had been adversely affected by the country’s economic downturn.
In short, he made a personal connection.
The current President Bush likely would have done the same. One can conjure up the president, crooked grin across his face, walking over to the autistic boy and offering a high-five before engaging his mother and perhaps even growing a little misty-eyed.
It’s difficult to picture either president citing how much money NIH is spending and then driving home a point about another topic.
But that is Romney’s nature. It’s metrics and message.
When delving into questions ? immigration, Iraq, even his faith ? where he can rattle off a tightly packaged answer that would align with a PowerPoint slideshow, Romney’s presentation is crisp, even dazzling.
Here are my three basic principles ? boom, boom, boom ? and this is the bottom line of what I believe. But when the topic is less predictable and less amenable to a boardroom breakdown, he’s not at ease.
Which is probably why Sam’s mom got the microphone back later at the event to ask again about autism.